Scott Hassan looks at his household appliances and turns sullen. “When it comes to true automation in the house, all we really have after garage doors are dishwashers and washing machines,” he says. “And they really haven’t changed in 30 or 40 years. I mean, it’s really sad.”
Hassan left Google (GOOG), where he’d been one of the key early employees, six years ago with a fortune in hand and plans to revolutionize robotics. He started Willow Garage, which has developed an open-source operating system for robots and a machine with which researchers can experiment. Willow Garage has also served as an incubator for robotics technology, and Hassan this week unveiled an incubated product he thinks will one day alter home automation.
The product is called Beam, and it comes from Suitable Technologies, a Willow Garage spinoff. Beam is basically a roving videoconferencing system. It has a sturdy base with two wheels, which are powered by a small electric motor, and a couple of white posts that rise to support a screen with speakers and video cameras.
The idea is to have a Beam in a central office and then let remote workers drive it around via software on their PCs. This allows them to wheel into conference rooms or pop by a co-worker’s desk for a chat. “People essentially want to beam themselves somewhere,” Hassan says. “We think this allows you to actually be present somewhere where you are not.”
When I first arrive at Suitable Technologies’ office in Palo Alto, a Beam rolls up to greet me at the door. Hassan’s face fills the screen, and he asks me if I’d like a water or coffee and turns a bit to show me the direction of the kitchen. Next, Hassan/Beam wheels into a conference room and goes to the far side of the table. We chat with people in the room and another person on a Beam for about an hour.
It took Suitable Technologies just a couple of months to whip up a prototype of the device. The company then spent 18 months refining the design. The developers wanted to make sure the Beam did not place any burden on the home office workers, so they designed the device to let remote employees drive it to its recharging dock. The Beam has forward- and down-facing cameras so drivers can see what’s coming. They follow guides on a slick software interface and use a mouse or the arrow keys on a keyboard to control where the Beam moves.
Suitable also added several arrays of microphones to help reduce noise and pick up where someone’s voice is coming from. It then added wide-angle cameras to provide for a large peripheral field of view and used four wireless radios to make sure the system keeps a strong signal for the video and voice communications. The hope is that all this will separate Beam from rival devices that are basically iPads attached to sticks. Suitable plans to start delivering the Beams first in the Bay Area for $16,000 each in November.
Technically, the Beam is not a robot because it requires a remote operator. Still, Hassan thinks it will help people get used to the idea of automated creatures moving around the home and office. “I see this as a way to slowly add more complex systems into peoples’ lives,” he says. “Once they accept this, maybe they will accept a version with a remote-controlled arm.”